Artist Dana Schutz: Rearranging the world

Dana Schutz’s paintings delve into a world of the uncomfortable and impossible

Devourer (2004)
Painting by Dana Schutz

What if, Dana Schutz asked herself, you remove the finite result from an action, the part where death would result from something like eating yourself, and the narrative of your life was freed from that inevitable end? She painted the answer in oil on canvas — slick, boldly colored images of the “Devourer” eating the fingers of his hands, or “Face eater,” a wide mouth swallowing the eyes off its own face.

It’s challenging work to view — though, perhaps, not as challenging as “How we would give birth,” part of Schutz’s series on how we would do things if a painting taught you how to do it, but gave the wrong information. Needless to say, that would not have been a successful birth any more than “How we would talk” appears to be a successful conversation.

“How we would talk” (2007)

The female figure, her back to the viewer and the phone handset magnetically attached to her head, is sliding her hand down the grimy glass of a phone booth, wiping the grit away to reveal a view of the hills in front of her, almost audibly lonely.

The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels opened Nov. 11. It’s a survey of the last 10 years of her work — really, the only 10 years of her work. Schutz, who was born in 1976, was the winner of the 2011 Roy R. Neuberger Exhibition Prize, an award for an artist to put together an early career exhibition and catalogue. Denver Art Museum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Gwen Chanzit assembled the exhibition from that catalogue.

The exhibition chronicles 10 years of Schutz’s creative mind at play and of her becoming an artist, says Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer director of the Denver Art Museum. Exploring the work of an artist in a set period of time is something of a theme for the Denver Art Museum in a year that has also seen a massive retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s work and is currently showing “Becoming Van Gogh” about the development and, coincidentally, 10-year career of one of the world’s best known Impressionists.

“Guitar Girl

Schutz’s work is hailed as some of the most exciting coming from a young artist today, says Chanzit, who describes the paintings as unique and unbridled.

“I think a lot of what makes these so special is that Dana really lets us in on her own free process of imagination that’s absolutely fresh and original,” Chanzit says. “She explores the sometimes bizarre threads that could follow from a quick flash of thought, sometimes an impulse that we would never actually act on, but the kind that we all have — we might not talk about them, but we have them. We ignore them, we repress them as we go about our everyday lives, but Dana’s not afraid of those. In fact, she grabs them. She grabs that passing thought or that impulse and explores it to see where it might lead, what situations might come about if we actually looked at the world anew and if we let our minds go. So her subjects are really fueled by this nonstop imagination completely open to all the possibilities, rational and not.”

To take in the work, Chanzit suggests that viewers give themselves over to the impossible and be open to the outlandish or unthinkable.

From the earliest painting in the exhibition, “Sneeze,” completed in 2001, to the latest, “Lick a brick” in 2011, Schutz grapples with representing what we can never physically see and with the exchange between what she represents and what those who become witnesses to her work experience. She describes the desired effect of her paintings as “contagious,” though art museum staff may hope that no viewer takes that literally in the case of “Shaking, Cooking, Peeing.”

The effect she’s seeking is palpable in “Carpenter,” which depicts a large set of teeth scraping the varnish off a dry wood deck. The paint on the canvas has also been scraped away, and the response to the image is similar to that fingernails-on-a-chalkboard flinch. She was, Schutz says, going for “the sense of how it would feel.”

When she started studying contemporary art in the mid to late ’90s, she says, paintings were predominantly of a photographic style.

“For me, it was really a big challenge to think about how to come up with an image, how do you begin to imagine an image that maybe didn’t exist before,” she says. Though she was concerned the work might be considered regressive, she says, the direction she started to head was toward painterly, subjective paintings in an abstract expressionist style. Rather than capturing life as it was seen, she chased after representing life as it is felt.

Her work roamed from massive-scale paintings of female musicians to an exploration of fictional and speculative locations, and to looking at what was happening in the media — an experiment that resulted in her painting “The Autopsy of Michael Jackson” about the disembodied study of a dead celebrity years before Jackson’s death. Finally, drawings she had started making during phone conversations and as stress relief began repeating a motif of people eating themselves.

“The Autopsy of Michael Jackson” (2005)

“There was a moment where I thought, I can’t make this my work because it’s too angsty, it’s sort of bad therapy,” Schutz says. “But then I became interested in it, thinking about how it could work. If you did eat yourself, then you could remake yourself. You would digest yourself and you could remake yourself to be any form you wanted to be, so it started to feel like this very generative situation.”

The idea sparked a package of paintings of people eating their own body parts, reinventing themselves by swallowing the contents of shelves holding noses, eyes and breasts.

“I was thinking about different ways to generate images and lot of these ways to generate images were coming from things that are maybe intangible in the world and sometimes language can work in this way,” she says.

Her playing-with-words constructions also led to paintings around the results for Google searches starting with the words “I’m into…”, which yielded prompts like “I’m into navy blue,” and “I’m into shooting in natural environments” (2008). Though the search itself would come back with results about photography, Schutz went for guns, and painted a scene of a man seated in the fragments of a living room, blindfolded and gripping a half-empty glass, while an attacker draped in a sheet points a gun at the man’s head through a slot in the wall.

The wanderings in her career have also included a series on verbs, in which she explores the challenge of representing an action in a static image without defaulting to the symbols we typically use to communicate that action.

“Swimming, Smoking, Crying” (2009)

“As I was writing down these verbs I was finding that some of them made really good pairs with each other in a way where they could make a poetic sense but also cancel each other out potentially,” she says. She puts “Swimming, Smoking, Crying” together in a painting, and the actions themselves fail to signify the emotions they stereotypically do as swimming extinguishes or erases the traces of smoking or crying.

“They fail to communicate,” she says. “They don’t work.”

For the self-eaters, she says, she approached the subject theoretically as well.

“If you take something finite like death out of the equation it’s like you all the sudden have a lot of narrative or fictive possibilities,” she says. But determining where to begin with painting something as impossible as eating your own face meant taking a step back. “I just thought, gosh, in order to paint something, you have to be able to imagine it, or have some kind of vague idea of how this could begin. … How would you begin to eat your face and then how would then you begin to paint that? So I thought maybe you would start from the bottom lip up, and then maybe the tongue could come in, but I was thinking about it, too, that if you just continued on, there would just be nothing. The whole site for expression would just be completely blank and there would just be maybe a slit left, and that, to me, felt so much like an image eating its own image.”

Making that painting meant rearranging the logic of the world to create a fictional logic — not so much a narrative, as an imagined situation that requires re-imagining our reality, changing our experience of it. As Schutz says, the paintings become places where you can rearrange the hierarchies of the world.

Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels will be at the Denver Art Museum until Jan. 13. 100 W. 14th Ave., Denver, 720-865-5000. For more information, visit